State - Detroit State ramps up efforts to promote healthy eating

By David Runk

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- The state, local governments and community groups are ramping up efforts to make fresh, healthy produce more widely available -- especially in urban areas -- with a mix of programs targeting shoppers and sellers alike.

This spring, Detroit launched a new effort to improve its grocery stores. And a food bank that serves tens of thousands of families in western Michigan and the Upper Peninsula is among agencies expanding fresh food delivery.

Not getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables is seen as public health issue, especially in cities like Detroit where the obesity rate is among the nation's highest. Across the state, people are finding creative ways to respond.

"The movement around fresh food ... is an expansive movement that includes all kinds of people," said Ismael Ahmed, director of the state's Department of Human Services, which coordinates food assistance for about 1.8 million people in Michigan. "We believe there are multiple strategies to get this done."

The state and the nonprofit Fair Food Network, for example, collaborated on a pilot project to allow food assistance recipients who spend $10 on fresh fruits and vegetables to get $20 worth of food. Longer term, Ahmed said, the state would like to encourage the development of mid-sized supermarkets in underserved areas to help provide better produce.

This month, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing was joined by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and others to announce the Green Grocer Project, which is envisioned as a three-year, $32 million effort to help improve the quality of grocery stores. The aim is not just to improve food choices for Detroit shoppers, but to strengthen neighborhoods.

"If a grocery store isn't a community anchor, I don't know what is," said Sarah Fleming, program manager for the Green Grocer Project.

For food banks, perishable food -- including fresh fruits and vegetables -- is the hardest to distribute, said John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan, which serves more than 1,300 agencies such as food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens that distribute food in 40 counties.

Since 1998, the nonprofit food clearinghouse has pioneered the use of mobile food pantries in what essentially are converted beverage distribution trucks to carry perishable food to drop-off points. This year, it got its first refrigerated truck under a partnership with the Kraft Foods Foundation.

"We expect to handle more than 25 million pounds of food this year," Arnold said. "About half of that will be perishable."

The state's Project Fresh program allows food stamp recipients to spend coupons for fresh produce at farmers' markets. Kirsten G. Simmons, executive director of the Michigan Food Policy Council, said that by the end of this year food assistance recipients will be able to spend their benefits at a quarter of such markets.

Around Michigan, there's an increasing interest in fresh and locally grown food. In Detroit, roving produce trucks are rolling as part of the state-supported MI Neighborhood Food Movers pilot project. Field of Our Dreams, a small business that sells produce by pickup truck, is among the groups participating.

The truck parks for a few hours at a time in different locations each week, selling everything from apples, peaches, bananas and plums to carrots, celery, cabbage and greens. It harkens back to an earlier time in Detroit, FOOD co-owner Warren Thomas said, when produce trucks were a common sight in the neighborhoods.

"There was something that was missing that was there when I was younger," said Thomas, 71, who drives the truck and sells from it.

Food Movers was inspired by Peaches & Greens, which started using a mobile truck in 2008. Lisa Johanon, executive director of the nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp. that runs Peaches & Greens, said they've also added stops at senior citizen centers and apartment buildings.

Smaller stores that sell mostly prepackaged snacks, tobacco and alcohol also are being targeted. Detroit FRESH: The Healthy Corner Store Project started in 2008, focused first on the city's east side and now is expanding to the west side, said Kami Pothukuchi, an associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University.

About 20 are participating. Detroit FRESH equips them with supplies such as baskets and shelves for produce, and connects them with a distributor to make deliveries -- often smaller amounts than a typical grocery store. The idea is to benefit both the store and area residents by making fresh food available.

"Why not include products that you know are more positive and healthy for the neighborhood, even if it is not a part of your business model? ... It's a way to give back," Pothukuchi said. "It also would be a way to get more people who come into the store who would not normally come into the store."

Published: Wed, Jun 2, 2010